Who Is Captain Moroni?

January 4, 2016

Two days ago, on January 2, a group of well-armed, self-described “patriots” broke into the headquarters/visitors center of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon, saying they will not move until their nebulous and unspecified demands are met. I wasn’t surprised that, among the leaders of the takeover, was Ammon Bundy, son of Cliven Bundy, whose refusal to pay federal grazing fees led to an armed confrontation in Nevada in April 2015. The elder Bundy had cited his Mormon beliefs in support of his defiance of federal law. Fortunately, the month-long standoff did not result in bloodshed, but it certainly looked as if it might.

In an article for Oregon Public Broadcasting, John Sepulvado tries to explain the Mormon connection to the current standoff. I think he did a fair job of it, but I wanted to explore a little bit more of what is behind the peculiar mix of right-wing insurrection and Mormon theology.

As Mr. Sepulvado correctly explains, these armed groups take their cues from Mormon symbolism, particularly the episode in the Book of Mormon involving a man called Captain Moroni gathering the free and righteous under the “Title of Liberty.” This explains why one armed man at the Malheur refuge identified himself as “Captain Moroni, from Utah.”

cptmoroni

As Mr. Sepulvado explains, the story is basically that, at a time when the free government of the Nephites (the protagonists of the Book of Mormon) is under attack by evil dissenters (known as “king-men”), the righteous warrior, Captain Moroni, is outraged at the government’s refusal to come to his aid and therefore threatens to take up arms against the government–ironically to preserve the government. Here’s Sepulvado’s summary:

According to LDS scripture, Captain Moroni took command of the Nephites when he turned 25. Moroni innovated weaponry, strategy and tactics to help secure the safety of the Nephites, and allow them to worship and govern as they saw fit.

In LDS texts, Moroni prepares to confront a corrupt king by tearing off part of his coat and turning it into a flag, hoisting it as a “title of liberty.” This simple call to arms inspired a great patriotism in the Nephites, helping to raise a formidable army. Vastly outnumbered, the corrupt king fled. According to the Book of Mormon, Captain Moroni continued to push for liberty among his people.

“And it came to pass that Moroni was angry with the government, because of their indifference concerning the freedom of their country.”

This is only partially correct. There was no king at the time described, but a “chief governor,” elected more or less by the voice of the people. The chief governor was a man named Pahoran, who, according to the Book of Mormon, was not corrupt and did not flee. Rather, Pahoran supported Captain Moroni but explained that he had been driven out of his capital by the king-men:

I, Pahoran, who am the chief governor of this land, do send these words unto Moroni, the chief captain over the army. Behold, I say unto you, Moroni, that I do not joy in your great afflictions, yea, it grieves my soul.

But behold, there are those who do joy in your afflictions, yea, insomuch that they have risen up inrebellion against me, and also those of my people who are freemen, yea, and those who have risen up are exceedingly numerous.

And it is those who have sought to take away the judgment-seat from me that have been the cause of this great iniquity; for they have used great flattery, and they have led away the hearts of many people, which will be the cause of sore affliction among us; they have withheld our provisions, and have daunted our freemen that they have not come unto you.

And behold, they have driven me out before them, and I have fled to the land of Gideon, with as many men as it were possible that I could get.

And behold, I have sent a proclamation throughout this part of the land; and behold, they are flocking to us daily, to their arms, in the defence of their country and their freedom, and to avenge our wrongs. (Alma 61:2-6)

Subsequent chapters in the Book of Mormon describe how Captain Moroni and Pahoran work together to drive out the king-men and reestablish government control over the land. It’s a bit strange that Bundy and his friends see themselves as latter-day Captain Moronis, given that they clearly oppose the elected government of the people. If anything, the actions of Bundy and his friends more closely resemble the actions of the king-men described in the Book of Mormon. Unlike Pahoran and Captain Moroni, they have no legitimate claim to represent the government or the people. They are, in fact, guilty of sedition at best, treason at worst.

So, how did the symbolism of Mormonism become so tightly entwined with right-wing, anti-government ideology?

First, as most Americans understand, early Mormons experienced violent opposition from their non-Mormon neighbors in New York, Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois in the 19th century. Their attempts at redress from the federal government fell on deaf ears. Finally, after a mob murdered church founder Joseph Smith and his brother, the Latter-day Saints were compelled to flee the United States and establish an isolated homeland in what was then part of Mexico. Within a couple of years of their settling Utah, the Mexican-American War resulted in Utah Territory coming under United States jurisdiction. The Mormons in Utah resented being governed by Washington, and they more or less used church ecclesiastical structure for day-to-day business and law. By 1857, federal appointees in Utah, tired of having their powers “usurped” or ignored by the Mormons, asked Present James Buchanan for help in putting down a “rebellion” in Utah. Buchanan sent 2,500 armed soldiers to install a new federally appointed governor and enforce federal law. The resulting Utah War ended with few casualties but a healthy suspicion of the federal government among Mormons. Anti-polygamy laws that disenfranchised Mormons, criminalized their religious practices, and seized church assets further ingrained a culture of suspicion toward the government.

But that’s only half the story. By the time of the Great Depression, Utah would follow most of the country in supporting Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “New Deal,” which rested on strong federal government action to lift the country out of economic catastrophe. Indeed, more than 60% of Utah voters supported Roosevelt in 1936, 1940, and 1944, with support at 70% in 1936. It seemed that Mormons had made their peace with strong central government.

Then the Cold War came.

After World War II, America became gripped by a fear of Communist takeover. Most of us are familiar with the House Un-American Activities Committee, blacklists, and Joseph McCarthy. Out of the “Red Scare” came an extreme right-wing ideology that saw a Communist conspiracy in most efforts at international cooperation (such as the United Nations) and “big government” policies. Most prominent among proponents of this ideology was the John Birch Society, founded in 1958 by Robert Welch. He stated, “Both the U.S. and Soviet governments are controlled by the same furtive conspiratorial cabal of internationalists, greedy bankers, and corrupt politicians. If left unexposed, the traitors inside the U.S. government would betray the country’s sovereignty to the United Nations for a collectivist New World Order, managed by a ‘one-world socialist government'” (The Blue Book of the John Birch Society).

As we’ve seen with the Bundy folks, the idea that there are secret, treasonous forces at work within the government resonates with Mormon beliefs. Throughout the Book of Mormon are warnings against “secret combinations,” or secret organizations dedicated to the destruction of freedom and righteousness.

And there are also secret combinations, even as in times of old, according to the combinations of the devil, for he is the founder of all these things; yea, the founder of murder, and works of darkness; yea, and he leadeth them by the neck with a flaxen cord, until he bindeth them with his strong cords forever. (2 Nephi 26:22).

One prominent adherent of the Birch Society was well-known Mormon W. Cleon Skousen. His book, The Naked Communist, became an important part of the Birch Society canon, and was followed by The Naked Capitalist. The latter book draws mainly on Carroll Quigley’s Tragedy and Hope (a history of modern European imperialism and multinational organizations) to suggest that, behind the lofty rhetoric of these international bodies lies an insidious effort to control the world through a single socialist government. Most serious students of history rightly dismiss Skousen’s theories, though such luminaries as Glenn Beck wholeheartedly endorse them.

But the link to Mormonism wasn’t cemented until apostle Ezra Taft Benson gave outspoken support to Skousen’s ideas and the Birch Society. Benson grounded his attacks on the United Nation, the Civil Rights movement, and other alleged instruments of Communism in his defense of the U.S. Constitution, which he referred to as “miraculous,” “a heavenly banner,” and “divinely inspired.” Indeed, LDS scripture has God saying, “I established the Constitution of this land, by the hands of wise men whom I raised up unto this very purpose” (D&C 101:80).

In this way, Benson not only linked the principles of republican democracy and freedom to belief in God, but he specifically called out anything beyond a strict-constructionist reading of the Constitution as being inspired of the devil. Seen in this light, the following statements from a Bundy rally in Utah are completely understandable:

“If our (U.S.) Constitution is an inspired document by our Lord Jesus Christ, then isn’t it scripture?” Bundy asked.

“Yes,” a chorus of voices replied.

“Isn’t it the same as the Book of Mormon and the Bible?” Bundy asked.

“Absolutely,” the audience answered.

In my experience, the folks who most loudly proclaim their love for the Constitution know the least about it, its history, and its development. A few years ago, I heard from a longtime friend who had somehow immersed himself in this right-wing ideology. After a few minutes talking with him, I realized he had only a superficial understanding of the Constitution and how it works. I asked him if he had ever read the Federalist Papers, a must for anyone wanting to understand the “heavenly banner.” I wasn’t surprised when he said he hadn’t. But, he said, “I understand Constitutional principles.”

In his response, my friend told me everything I need to know about these supposed freedom fighters: they have somehow mixed their political beliefs (and fears) with a particular reading of Mormon scripture. To them, it makes perfect sense that one would take up arms against the government in order to preserve our system of government. It seems to me that what they are really saying is that they refuse to be ruled by the voice of people who disagree with them.

I have just learned that the LDS church has issued a statement:

While the disagreement occurring in Oregon about the use of federal lands is not a Church matter, Church leaders strongly condemn the armed seizure of the facility and are deeply troubled by the reports that those who have seized the facility suggest that they are doing so based on scriptural principles. This armed occupation can in no way be justified on a scriptural basis. We are privileged to live in a nation where conflicts with government or private groups can — and should — be settled using peaceful means, according to the laws of the land.

Some might wonder if these armed men will listen to the church and reconsider their actions. If I were a betting man, I would say they will ignore the church’s clear condemnation, perhaps even believing that the church itself has been infiltrated by the enemies of God.


The Spectacles and the Stone

August 21, 2015

Great piece from my good friend Christopher Smith.

How the Book of Mormon Translation Story Changed over Time

Growing up in the LDS church, I was taught that Joseph Smith used the Urim and Thummim to translate the Book of Mormon, as described his 1838 history:

Also, that there were two stones in silver bows—and these stones, fastened to a breastplate, constituted what is called the Urim and Thummim—deposited with the plates; and the possession and use of these stones were what constituted “seers” in ancient or former times; and that God had prepared them for the purpose of translating the book.

As Chris notes, however, the official illustrations of the translation process almost never showed Joseph using the Urim and Thummim. For example, this compilation shows the Urim and Thummim in only one of the illustrations, and it’s one I did not see until I was well into adulthood.

Now, before someone gets upset, I am not suggesting some nefarious attempt to cover up church history. This version of the translation process is just what I was presented with growing up.

As the church has recently acknowledged, the other instrument used to translate was a seer stone that Joseph Smith had borrowed from Willard Chase. I was completely unaware of the seer stone until my mission president mentioned it in a devotional meeting in our office.

As Chris says, the church’s increased openness in discussing the translation process is a very positive sign that the church has decided to “peel back many of the layers of historical revisionism that have accumulated around the translation process.”


Boyd K. Packer

July 6, 2015

As pretty much all of my Mormon and former-Mormon readers will know by now, Boyd Kenneth Packer, President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, died on Friday, July 3, at the age of 90. I haven’t been surprised at all at the reactions from different camps. A great deal of vitriol has been heaped on his corpse in the last few days (my personal favorite: “Rot in hell, you bloated toad”), and, of course, the faithful mourn the passing of a great man who loved God and painted in his spare time (M. Russell Ballard said, “He was truly an apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ. From the crown of his head to the soles of his feet, he represented the Savior of the world”).

So, what was he: the Savior’s representative, or a vicious old toad? Quite clearly, how we see his life and legacy depends entirely on how we view the church he served for so long. Much has been said about Packer’s role in the September Six affair in 1993, his apparent preference for faith-promoting history over things “that are true [but] not very useful,” and his retrograde attitudes towards sexuality and, in particular, homosexuality. He clearly was a lightning rod who did not shy away from controversy. As Dallin Oaks said of him, “You can’t stage-manage a grizzly bear.”

I had only a few minor brushes with the man. Like all Mormon boys of my generation, I was well-acquainted with his talk, “To Young Men Only,” which, although it spawned countless jokes about “little factories,” made it clear to me that masturbation was a terrible evil, so I vowed to stop, and was quite successful (so much so that my urologist tells me that certain health issues I have had are a direct result of my not “stimulating my little factory”). I learned from Elder Packer that it wasn’t enough not to masturbate, but I was to control my thoughts with such vigilance that I would never allow my mind to wander to anything lustful. More than anything, this teaching is what filled my young mind with shame and guilt, which would remain for many years.

My first real-life brush with President Packer came in December 1983, a couple of weeks after I received my mission call. My birthday is in November, so I had agonized over whether I should squeeze in another semester of college before leaving or enter the MTC right when I turned 19. I finally decided to go back to school, which meant delaying my mission for a couple of months. When my roommate and I heard then-Elder Packer was coming to Provo to give a “missionary fireside,” we were excited, and we arrived early at the Provo Tabernacle to get good seats. Elder Packer spoke about how selfish it is to delay a mission for any reason, such as education or finances. I sat there, slowly shrinking in my seat, burning with shame for having acted so selfishly. Had I been more faithful, I thought, I would have been in the MTC at that very moment, instead of feeling all that guilt. After the meeting, my roommate insisted that we get in line to shake Elder Packer’s hand. The last thing I wanted to do was to have to look him in the eye, knowing I had shirked my duty and that he knew. As we got closer to him, the shame kept on building. Eventually, he put out his hand and shook mine. He looked me in the eye and asked, “Are you going to serve a mission, young man?” I told him I had already received my mission call and would be leaving for Bolivia in a few weeks. He patted my hand, smiled, and said, “Well, that’s just fine.” I was so relieved. Clearly, I had been forgiven, but I vowed I would never again put my own needs ahead of the Lord’s.

The next time I came across President Packer in person was in 1993, when I was working at the Church Office Building. Our editing staff had been invited to the All-Church Coordinating Council, which was a meeting of everyone in management in the building. We met in the auditorium, and we heard from M. Russell Ballard, President Packer, and finally, President Thomas Monson. I don’t remember Elder Ballard’s talk at all, but I do have a vivid memory of President Monson glaring at us over glasses he’d borrowed from Neal Maxwell, berating us for our poor efforts to spread the gospel message. But everyone else remembers President Packer’s talk, now (in)famous for his belief that the church faced three great dangers: “the gay-lesbian movement, the feminist movement (both of which are relatively new), and the ever-present challenge from the so-called scholars or intellectuals.” What struck me at the time was less his calling out of people who were “facing the wrong way,” but more that he read letters from members who were obviously distraught, yet his tone was disdainful and even mocking (the official transcript does not include the laughter he elicited at the letter-writers’ expense). I found the whole thing deeply troubling, and I remember thinking, as the auditorium rang with raucous laughter, “This is not a man of God.” I felt terribly guilty for thinking that, but I couldn’t shake it.

The last encounter I had with him was in 1996, when I attended the dedication of the Mt. Timpanogos Temple in American Fork, Utah. Our bishopric had received tickets to the celestial room, meaning that we would be in the same room as the prophet (Gordon B. Hinckley) when he spoke and offered the dedicatory prayer. At the time, we had 5 small children, and although we had tried to get out of the house early, we didn’t arrive until about 15 minutes before the meeting would begin. To our surprise, the room had been filled from the back, going forward, meaning that our bishop, who had arrived 4 hours early, was seated in the very back row. My wife and I, on the other hand, were in the second row, with only the secretary to the Quorum of Seventy and his wife sitting in the row ahead of us (I knew him from my days at the Church Office Building). Only a couple of things stand out to me: first was President Hinckley saying, as near as I can remember it, “That you are here means that you are the best people in the world, that is, if you were honest in your worthiness interviews.” I remember digging through my brain, trying to find some failing I’d missed, but I ended up feeling pretty good about myself. President Packer was to lead the “Hosanna Shout,” which is the point during the dedication when everyone stands, waves a white handkerchief in the air, and shouts, “Hosanna! Hosanna! Hosanna, to God and the Lamb!” three times, followed by, “Amen, Amen, and Amen!” He gave us some background history, and then led the shout. I thought he seemed bored in his matter-of-fact recitation of the “shout,” which was more of a low-key chant than anything. I’m guessing he was aiming at solemn dignity, but it sounded mechanical and uninspiring to me. I thought maybe I just wasn’t in tune with the Spirit.

And that’s pretty much it. I didn’t know the man and certainly didn’t know his heart. Part of me admires his dedication to the LDS church. His entire adult life was spent serving the church in one way or another. After a career in the Church Education System (mostly as an administrator), he was called into full-time church service as an Assistant to the Twelve when he was only 37 years old. Eight years later he was called as an apostle, so more than half his life was spent as a full-time church leader, with almost exactly half his life as an apostle. Anyone who saw him the last few years knows he was in very poor health, and yet he still served his church to the best of his ability. He was, by all accounts, a dedicated and loving husband and father to 10 children, and despite what some have said, it seems to me that he lived a fairly modest lifestyle.

At the same time, I completely understand why so many people disliked the man, maybe even hated him (for the record, I have trouble mustering hatred for anyone, so I don’t). His teachings, regardless of their intention, put me and many others through a great deal of unnecessary guilt and shame. A friend tells me that Packer’s teachings about masturbation drove him to attempt suicide at age 45. I know a lot of gay and bisexual members (and their spouses) who have suffered so much because of his condemnation of them. Am I angry? Do I blame him for putting people through all that? It would be easy to do so, but I don’t blame him, at least not entirely and not specifically him.. He was simply expressing what everyone in LDS culture knew about sexuality: outside of marriage, it was not to be expressed or even thought of. I’m sure he believed that as fervently as I did, so I can’t blame him for saying what I probably would have said had I been in his position. Did those teachings mess me up? Undoubtedly, but, whatever I experienced, those teachings didn’t originate with him, and they were expressed just as forcefully by others, such as Spencer W. Kimball.

It’s also easy to single him out for his role in quieting dissent and keeping a lid on those aspects of church history that are “not uplifting.” But again, he was merely giving voice to certain strains within the church as an institution. Alone, he could not possibly have orchestrated the excommunication of six very different personalities; the September Six happened because that’s where the church was in 1993. That the institution’s goals coincided with his beliefs is more a problem with the institution. Packer made an easy target, perhaps because people wanted to see him as an aberration, an outlier, so they could distance the church from its actions.

I suspect he recognized his role as lightning rod. He took it upon himself to attract the attention and vitriol of those who would otherwise understand that his “controversial” statements were simply restatements of what the church was already doing. Some might call that courageous, but I think he probably enjoyed it.

In the end, Boyd Kenneth Packer was just like the rest of us: complex, a mass of contradictions, and utterly human. May he rest in peace. And may all those who suffered shame and guilt because of his words find forgiveness–both for themselves, and for him.


Truth and the Book of Mormon

May 19, 2015

I stumbled across a series of articles about “fringe” historical and religious beliefs by Philip Jenkins, a history professor at Baylor University, over on Patheos. Basically, he discusses the tendency of iconoclasts to portray the academic community as totally resistant to change because of their heavy investment in the prevailing paradigm. Naturally, then, those who reject the scholarly consensus often see themselves as courageous champions of truth who will eventually be vindicated. Mind you, this phenomenon isn’t unique to anti-academic outsiders, but is pretty common among those who fight against what they see as powerful consensus. Heck, a lot of Mormon critics I know see themselves as bravely shining the light of truth on entrenched Mormon beliefs. Recently, someone accused me of hubris, complaining that I think I “get it” and no one else does, so perhaps I am not immune to this.

Anyway, in his first piece, “I Want to Believe,” Jenkins begins by discussing a common claim by people advocating fringe theories: the powers that be are suppressing or ignoring vital evidence that challenges the current consensus. As he says, though, there are good reasons for the consensus. Writing about a book that posits a married Jesus, Jenkins writes:

For a scholar approaching any thing like Lost Gospel, the primary questions concern sources. Is the source credible, and does it have any chance of presenting information that can plausibly be linked to the period in question? That does not necessarily mean that a source about Jesus must have been written in the first century, but can we see any suggestion it preserves older material, so that we can establish a credible chain? In other words, a hypothetical thirteenth century document might contain a fifth century text, which preserved the words of some very early historian writing not long after Jesus’s time. Such a find would be wonderful, and might even revolutionize scholarship. Nothing like that appears in Lost Gospel. If there were the vaguest trace of a smidgeon of a hint of a suspicion that Joseph and Aseneth might have anything like the importance that Lost Gospel claims, someone would have suggested it long ago.

In short, the consensus is based on the accumulation of credible sources, not on the suppression of data. In his next article, “Outliers and Iconoclasts,” he introduces a legal standard for establishing the credibility of a source:

Federal courts have also wrestled for years to decide what does or does not constitute legitimate scientific evidence. The current measure is the so-called Daubert Standard, which includes these criteria:

1.Empirical testing: whether the theory or technique is falsifiable, refutable, and/or testable

2.Whether it has been subjected to peer review and publication.

3.The known or potential error rate.

4.The existence and maintenance of standards and controls concerning its operation.

5.The degree to which the theory and technique is generally accepted by a relevant scientific community.

Some of those items apply more than others to the topics I am discussing, but here again we see the stress on scholarly consensus and general acceptance. The “mainstream” matters!

He notes that none of this involves appeal to authority. Scholars can and are mistaken, but, as he shows, in “The Monte Verde Principle,” the consensus changes when the evidence compels it to change. He notes that the discovery of the Monte Verde archaeological site challenged the prevailing paradigm and eventually overthrew it in what Thomas Kuhn would call a scientific revolution.

Put another way, scientists certainly did accept a paradigm, but when competing evidence arose, it was tested and verified, and the old model was effectively falsified. Such a change happens by focusing intensely on one clear exception to the rule, and then expanding to other contentious areas. And as everyone agrees, any such alleged exception has to be treated with the most rigorous and hyper-critical care.

That is what separates real science and archaeology from pseudo-science and pseudo-archaeology. Challenging consensus wisdom is done by recognized scientific methods, and not by producing an endless swarm of obviously spurious junk examples.

You know the best way to challenge an orthodoxy? Produce one, just one, really convincing and verifiable example that forces mainstream scholars to change their minds, and all else follows from that. If you can’t produce a single exception to challenge the rule, your cause is not worth much. Call it the Monte Verde Principle.

To my surprise, in “Mormons and New World History” and “Wandering over the Plains of the Nephites,” Jenkins goes on to use Book of Mormon apologetics as an example of fringe pseudoscience employed to bolster claims that are “simply not factually correct in any particular.” Some of my readers might expect me to pile on in scorning Mormon apologetics, but that’s not what I found interesting about Jenkins’s article. Yes, he correctly explains that an extraordinary theory must have its “Monte Verde,” or some clear evidence supporting it before it can be accepted. In his view and that of most scholars, the Book of Mormon has none. That said, however, he doesn’t dismiss Mormons as simple-minded rubes with misguided faith. In fact, he expresses no opinion about the spiritual truth of Mormonism:

I have a lot of sympathy for Mormonism and the LDS tradition, for multiple reasons. So many of their ideas and principles appeal to me, and my personal dealings with Mormons have been overwhelmingly positive. The church’s phenomenal social ministries fill me with awe. As to whether the church was founded by an authentic prophet: with all humility, I say, God knows. On the academic side of things, if you don’t know Mormon history, you are missing a huge amount of American religious history. If a member of my family announced an intention to join the LDS church, I would disagree with their decision, but I would wish them all success.

This is pretty much my view. I don’t see any evidence that supports an ancient origin for the Book of Mormon, but I cannot make any categorical statements about someone else’s faith being “true” or “false.” Obviously, I agree with the scholarly consensus about Book of Mormon claims, but I know and respect a lot of people who believe wholeheartedly in Mormonism, regardless of credible evidence or lack thereof. They feel their beliefs are based on solid grounds, both “scientific” and spiritual, as I feel mine are. That we disagree on the credibility and importance of different kinds of evidence does not mean either side is necessarily arrogant in believing we are right. That’s just human nature.

It will be interesting to see where Mormon apologetics goes from here. From what I can see, the arguments are all about possible and plausible scenarios, not about solid evidence–a Monte Verde–in favor of the Book of Mormon. I don’t expect such evidence will be forthcoming, but you never know.


The Road to Apostasy

April 2, 2015

I have been thinking about the process of losing one’s faith and leaving the church. I’ve been told countless times that people who leave the church have done things the wrong way; it’s not usually a huge, obvious mistake, but a series of seemingly small and insignificant missteps along the way, that lead a person down the road to apostasy.

I thought of someone I’m familiar with (I’ll call him “H”) who has shared how he began this difficult journey and eventually found himself outside the church. As much as possible, I’ll try to let him speak for himself, in his own words. I readily acknowledge that I don’t see the mistakes, the missteps, that led H to lose faith, but I’m hoping–expecting, really–that some active members of the church will enlighten me and help me understand where he went wrong and how he could have salvaged his faith.

H did not grow up a member of the church, but when he was a young adult, he began to feel there was something missing in his life, and a chance encounter with members led him to investigate the church. Although he initially found the scriptures “impenetrable,” he felt the church offered answers to his questions and could help him to “actually handle life, and your problems, and not have them handle you.”

Joining the church gave H a feeling of belonging and a sense of purpose. “I did experience gains,” he says, and he felt he was able to let go of earlier guilt, feeling forgiven for “things I’d done as a teenager that I didn’t feel good about. I think I did, in some ways, become a better person. I did develop more empathy for others.”

H poured himself into church activity, becoming a leader and example to others. But some things about the church nagged at him because they just didn’t seem right. He heard rumors about the church’s origins and some disturbing stories about the church’s founder, whom he had come to revere. But he dismissed these concerns as fabrications from apostates. “There’s always disgruntled folks who say all sorts of things,” he thought. As H saw other church members testify of the blessings they had received, he wondered why he wasn’t seeing the same blessings in his own life. “Maybe there is something,” he told himself, “and I’m just missing it.”

Throughout his time in the church, he was always taught that either it was all true, or it was a lie. Although he struggled to believe the founding narratives of the church, he was told that, if what the church founder and witnesses had testified of had “never existed,” the church must be “based on a lie.” He decided that he would take a more liberal approach to his religion and live the church’s teachings on his own terms. He would “pick and choose” the parts of the religion he wanted to believe and disregard those things he didn’t like.

For a number of years, H continued in his journey of faith, but eventually, things came to a head in 2008, when H was horrified at the church’s public support for Proposition 8, the anti-gay marriage proposition in California. When he voiced his concerns to his church leaders, they downplayed the church’s role and urged him to drop the matter. A church member told him, “The church is not political. We all have tons of friends and relatives who are gay. … It’s not the church’s issue.” He knew that wasn’t true.

His frustration with the church led him to search the Internet for information about the church. Looking at unauthorized sources made him feel a little nervous, as he had always been taught that the only trustworthy information about the church was what the church published itself. His research uncovered a lot of troubling information, most of which would be familiar to my readers. But what struck him the most was seeing a high-ranking church leader tell an obvious untruth to a television interviewer. He met with “apostates” who had left the church, and many of them were angry, saying they felt “betrayed” by the church.

Feeling that his world was unraveling, H reached out to church leaders, who dismissed his concerns as being unfounded and urged him to rededicate himself to increased church activity to renew his flagging faith. After agonizing over his choices, H eventually realized that he could no longer be a member of the church in good conscience. He wrote a long letter explaining his decision and his reasons for making it, and sent it to his closest friends and leaders in the church. The response was unexpected. They insisted that he had listened to the wrong people and that he should have shared his concerns only with his church leaders, who could help him. Instead, he had listened to apostates and those who opposed the church, who were obviously lying. Besides, if he “genuinely wanted to change” the church, they told him, he “should stay within the organization, not quit; certainly, going public was not helpful.”

Although they tried to help him stay in the church, his friends and leaders reluctantly accepted his decision, but insisted that he keep his reasons for leaving to himself. Discussing what he had found out about the church could “damage” the lives of the faithful, and he had no right to do that. He told his friends about the information he had found on the Internet, urging them to see for themselves, but they were not willing to listen to information presented by enemies of the church. One friend told him that looking at those web sites was “like reading ‘Mein Kampf’ if you wanted to know something about the Jewish religion.”

Leaving the church has cost H relationships with some friends and even some family members. He has a keen sense of loss: “If you identify yourself with something for so long, and suddenly you think of yourself as not that thing, it leaves a bit of space.” But he is philosophical about it. “It’s not really the sense of a loss of community. Those people who walked away from me were never really my friends.”

What did H do wrong?


The Divide in Nauvoo

April 1, 2015

I can’t recommend enough this blog post from my friend Roger Launius:

Nauvoo and the Myth of Mormonism’s Persecuted Innocence

One quote stood out to me:

This mythic shift, the transmutation of the dissenters from innocent to evil, justified any and all acts of aggression on the part of the church against them. Of course, the tragic irony in all this is that the myth of innocence prevented the Mormons from learning from this history. So they reenacted it, with themselves in the role of the aggressors.

Growing up, I heard the tales of murderous mobs attacking the Saints in Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois, and it never occurred to me that there was anything to the story beyond religious bigotry and hatred. But there is always another side to every story, and as Roger explains, the “mobs” and their supporters adopted their own myth of patriotically standing up for liberty against despotism. It’s a common human thought process: you protect yourself by seeing the divide between you and your enemies in the starkest terms possible. That way, you don’t have to listen to their concerns, let alone consider those concerns legitimate in any way.

But in doing so, you don’t learn from history, and you tend to repeat it. I’m reminded of the Arab-Israeli conflict, in which both sides have so successfully dehumanized and delegitimized the other that the conflict seems destined to continue in an endless cycle of repeated history.


More on Joseph Smith’s “Near-Death Experience”

March 20, 2015
I mentioned in my earlier post that I had stolen a good chunk of information about the account of Charles Stoddard regarding William Law’s alleged shooting attempt against Joseph Smith in 1844. This same friend, who is an active member of the LDS church, sent me some further information, so I thought I would share it here.
The Stoddard tale is an interesting bit of folklore. As has been noted, there are two versions of the story: the spurious Sarah Stoddard journal and an affidavit sworn by Charles Stoddard’s granddaughter and great-grandaughter in 1949 (included in Mark L. McConkie’s compilation, Remembering Joseph). [The affidavit can be read here.]

So, the story as told in the Deseret News seems to be derived from the one from this affidavit, which was made some 30 years after the story’s origin (if my friend is correct that the story dates from after 1918).

If you subtract the gun play, Charles Stoddard’s story has certain similarities to Dennison Lott Harris’s story, which was recounted in an article called “Conspiracy of Nauvoo” that appeared in the April 1884 issue of The Contributor (the New Era of its day). The author of the piece, Horace Cummings, said that he heard Harris relate the story in 1883 and was so impressed by it that he wrote it down afterward in his journal. Later, after learning that The Contributor was offering a prize for a Christmas story, he “extended [his] journal account somewhat and wrote [the] article in competition for the prize.”

In the story, Harris and his friend, Robert Scott, attend secret meetings at William Law’s house as spies for Joseph Smith. There are three meetings. Before the third meeting, Joseph warns them not to enter into any secret oaths. Then, as the account has it, “after a pause of some moments, he added: ‘Boys, this will be their last meeting, and they may shed your blood, but I hardly think they will, as you are so young. If they do, I will be a lion in their path! Don’t flinch. If you have to die; die like men; you will be martyrs to the cause, and your crowns can be no greater.'” Sure enough, at the meeting, everyone is required to swear an oath dedicating themselves to Joseph Smith’s destruction. Everyone takes the oath but the two boys. The enraged mob clamors for their blood: they must take the oath or be killed. When they refuse again, the Law brothers and Austin Cowles frog-march them down to the cellar to slit their throats. Then, at the last moment, someone in the crowd yells—”as if by Divine interposition”—to halt the proceedings. The boys are reluctantly given a reprieve. They will be allowed to leave but must never speak of what they have seen or they will be killed on sight. Joseph, meanwhile, fearing for the boys’ safety, concealed himself along the river bank with one of his bodyguards, just out of sight of Law’s men. There’s a joyful reunion and the boys relate everything they had seen and heard to the grateful Prophet. Cummings’s article closes with the declaration that it “is a true recital of events that actually transpired.” This affirmation is somewhat undercut, however, by the postscript: “That which is elevating and ennobling in its tendency is necessarily true.”

So, it’s a nice story, but even the originator seems to take it with a grain of salt.

So according to Mormon folklore, the Law-Higbee-Foster et al. conspiracy against Joseph Smith was discovered by one or more courageous youths. Contemporary records, however, tell a different story. On 24 March 1844, Wilford Woodruff recorded in his journal the following remarks made by the Prophet:

“I have been informed by two gentleman that a conspiricy is got up in this place for the purpose of taking the life of President Joseph Smith his family and all the Smith family & the heads of the Church. One of the gentleman will give his name to the public & the other wishes it to be hid for the present. They will both testify to it on oath & make an affidavit upon it. The names of the persons revealed at the head of the conspiracy are as follows: (Chancy Higby Dr Foster, Mr Jackson, Wm. & Wilson Law). And the lies that Higby has hatched up as a foundation to work upon is, he says that I had mens heads Cut off in Missouri & that I had a sword run through the hearts of the people that I wanted to kill & put out of the way. I wont sware out a warrent against them for I don’t fear any of them. They would not scare of an old setting hen. I intend to publish all the iniquity that I know of. If I am guilty I am ready to bear it. Their is honor among enemies. I am willing to do any thing for the good of the people. I will give the names of one of the gentleman who have divulged the plot. His name is Eaton. He will sware to it. He is a bold fellow. Jackson said a Smith should not be alive 2 weeks not over two months any how. As concerning the Character of these men I will say nothing about it now but If I hear any thing more from them on this subject I will tell what I know about them.”

Joseph’s informants were M.G. Eaton and Abiathar Williams (see Times and Seasons, 15 May 1844, 541)—not Charles Stoddard, Dennison Harris, or Robert Scott. But I suppose, if the folklore is elevating and ennobling in its tendency, then it is necessarily true ;)

So, even in the 1880s they understood that some truths are not very useful, but some untruths can be uplifting.

What I wonder is how the story came to be appropriated by the Stoddard family, when the original, which seems pretty obviously made up, doesn’t have anything to do with Charles Stoddard or his family.  But it seems fairly common for family histories to insert themselves, Forrest Gump-like, into important events based on proximity. In other words, the Stoddards were in Nauvoo during the time of Joseph Smith’s murder, so surely they had a part in defending the prophet.

Several years ago, I read a biography of Frederick G. Williams called After One Hundred Years, published in the 1940s. It was written by a woman named Nancy Williams, who was a Williams by marriage only. She devotes an entire chapter to the Williamses’ likely involvement in the War of 1812, describing battles and ships and heroism. Only there is absolutely no evdience that anyone in the Williams family took part in that war. True, they lived in Kirtland, Ohio, which was near the Great Lakes, and William Wheeler Williams, Frederick’s father, had been involved in shipping on the lakes at one time. But there’s nothing to suggest he or anyone else in the family fought in the war, let alone served with heroic distinction. Basically, then, Mrs. Williams decided that, because he was near the action, William must have been involved. I think that’s the same thing that has happened with the Stoddard family. Maybe Charles was part of the Whistling and Whittling Brigade, or maybe he knew Joseph Smith or William Law personally Who knows?

P.S. For what it’s worth, here is an excerpt from a letter William Law wrote to Isaac Hill on 20 July 1844:

. . . My family and myself are all well, and have enjoyed good health and peace since we left Nauvoo, although the events which have transpired Since, were very shocking to my feeling/s\ yet, as they \(J&H)/ brought it upon themselves, and I used my influence to prevent any outrage Even from the Commencement of the Excitement, believing that the Civil Law had power to Expose iniquity, and punish the wicked I say Consequently, I look on Calmly, and while the wicked slay the wicked, I believe I can see the hand of a blasphemed God stretched out in judgment, the cries of inocence and virtue have ascended up before the throne of God, and he has taken Sudden vengeance.
I am as ever—
Respectfully Yours,
Wm. Law.

(William Law letter to Isaac Hill, 20 July 1844, MS 3473, CHL)

This sounds more like the William Law known from his actual words and actions. While I find his apparent satisfaction with the “vengeance” of God to be more than a little distasteful, he isn’t the foul-mouthed drunkard of the Stoddard and Harris accounts. You would think that, after everything that happened, if William Law had really conspired to kill Joseph Smith, he would have been just a little more proud of his accomplishment. What I find revealing is that Law basically left Mormonism and the Mormons alone after the deaths of Joseph and Hyrum Smith. Although he had plenty of opportunities to “expose” and denounce the LDS church later, he never spoke publicly about it until some 40 years later, when he was interviewed about his involvement with the Latter-day Saint movement.  You can read what he said in “Three Letters from William Law on Mormonism.” [Please note that my link is not an endorsement of Maze Ministry. I’m only linking to it because it’s the complete text.]

 


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